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Koo vs Twitter: How safe is India's atmanirbhar app?

French security expert Robert Baptiste, aka Elliot Alderson on Twitter, pointed out privacy issues with Koo, as also a Chinese connection

The Twitter logo in front of the Koo app logo
The Twitter logo in front of the Koo app logo (Reuters/File Photo)

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The Indian government's ongoing face-off with Twitter—the social media platform has not complied with the Centre's orders to take down certain content and suspend some 1,400 accounts—has a clear winner at last: the homegrown microblogging app Koo.

Winner of the Digital India AtmaNirbhar Bharat Innovate Challenge 2020, Koo is created by the Bengaluru-based Bombinate Technologies Private Limited. It allows users to "koo", as opposed to "tweet", in Indian languages. As of now the service operates in a handful of languages, such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and English (ahem!), but more are expected to be added in the coming days.

Koo, which has a yellow bird as its logo, said downloads have surged 10-fold in the past two days to over 3 million. Some of the big joinees include Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad (who has over 9 million followers on Twitter), Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, and members of Parliament Tejasvi Surya and Shobha Karandlaje.

The government think tank NITI Ayog, Sambit Patra, a national spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and BJP's head of IT Amit Malviya, also joined the platform on Wednesday.

#kooapp was the top Twitter trend in India on Wednesday with nearly 21,000 posts, followed by #BanTwitter. "The last 48 hours has seen the largest number of sign-ups," Koo's co-founder Mayank Bidawatka told Reuters. "I've slept for two hours in last few days."

But how safe is the app really? French security researcher and ethical hacker Robert Baptiste, who goes by the name Elliot Alderson on Twitter, posted on Thursday about the leakiness of Koo. According to Baptiste, personal details of Koo users—such as date of birth, marital status, gender and so on—are easily traceable by third parties. Other techies confirmed the privacy issues with the app as well.

Baptiste also pointed out a Chinese connection to the Koo app, which is true, since one of the investors in the company is Shunwei, a venture capital fund. Now that Koo is pitching itself as an "atmanirbhar app", the founders clarified that Shunwei would be selling its stake and exiting the company soon.

Koo became an overnight buzzword after Twitter riled the Indian government on Wednesday by stating in a public blog post that it had not fully complied with the Centre's order to suspend and block accounts because Twitter believed some of the take-down demands were not consistent with Indian law.

Earlier on Wednesday, Twitter had said following government orders it permanently suspended over 500 accounts for engaging in platform manipulation and spam. For many others, it only restricted access within India and their tweets can still be read abroad.

For Twitter, the stakes are high in India, where it had 17.5 million users as of last month, according to German database firm Statista. It is also used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Cabinet ministers and other leaders to communicate with the public.

Koo is the latest in a series of apps like Mastodon, to which many Indian users flocked a few months ago to protest against Twitter's seemingly arbitrary policy of suspension and verification of accounts.

In the US, Parler, an "alt-tech" microblogging app, drew in white supremacists, anti-Semites and racists, in the wake of Donald Trump's rise at the White House. Parler was accused of causing the insurrection at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. in January and has been suspended since then.

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